By Ruth Steinhardt
For businessman and philanthropist David Rubenstein, success entails a moral imperative to give back. That has frequently taken the form of restorations to beloved national heritage sites, including the Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial.
“I came from very modest circumstances,” he told an audience Tuesday night at the National Churchill Library and Center (NCLC) at the George Washington University. “I want to be able…to say thank you for my success in this country, and I owe it to the country. And I’m doing it in a way that’s designed to draw attention to [American] history and heritage.”
Mr. Rubenstein, a co-founder and co-executive chairman of private equity firm the Carlyle Group, is also the chairman of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, chairman of the Smithsonian Institution and president of the Economic Club of Washington, D.C. Success in the private sector came after an early career in public service, when Mr. Rubenstein was deputy domestic policy adviser to President Jimmy Carter.
As a lawyer and government official, Mr. Rubenstein told NCLC director Michael Bishop, he was mediocre. As a businessman he was better: “I got lucky.” That could be considered an understatement: The Carlyle Group is now the world’s biggest private equity firm.
But having to reevaluate his career affected Mr. Rubenstein’s philosophy of leadership. According to him, good leaders have to have an ability to communicate—orally, in writing or by example—and also must be willing to take risks and to fail.
And according to Mr. Rubenstein, he made plenty of mistakes in his time as a venture capitalist.
He remembered his firm passing on opportunities to buy Amazon stock in the 1990s, when the company was a cluttered office hand-delivering books to customers. When a friend of Mr. Rubenstein’s now son-in-law dropped out of Harvard University to start a business, Mr. Rubenstein declined to invest in the company, which would eventually become Facebook. And he passed on a “shaggy-haired kid in jeans and sandals” who turned out to be internet pioneer Mark Andreessen, inventor of the first widely used internet browser and co-founder of Netscape. These “terrible failures,” he said with a laugh, still haunt him.
“Some people never look back,” he said. “I cannot resist looking back.”
But Mr. Rubenstein said his financial successes and failures came second to his philanthropic ones. He called his standard of behavior the “mother test.”
“When I was building my company, my mother never called and said, ‘Hey, that’s a good thing,’ when we took the company public or made three times our money,” he said. “But when I started giving away the money, she would call me and say, ‘That’s a good thing. You’re actually doing something useful with your life.’”
Mr. Rubenstein may be best known for his donations to historical sites and causes, but he said the bulk of his philanthropy actually goes to education, medical research and other public service causes. His historical work gets attention, he said, because few other large-scale philanthropists are interested in it.
That lack of attention is symptomatic of a worrying lack of interest in American civics and history generally, Mr. Rubenstein said, especially since Americans think studying history won’t benefit them in an increasingly competitive job market. Mr. Rubenstein said part of his reason for buying historical artifacts and restoring historical sites is to try to reinvigorate Americans’ connection to, and interest in, their own past.
“If we have more informed citizens, it’s a better thing,” he said.